Month: February 2016

The New (Old) Wave

As you may know, on February 11 the team at LIGO announced that, using ultra-precise interferometers located in Louisiana and Washington state, they had recorded a “chirp” signal (known as GW150914), consistent with the observation of gravitational waves from a black-hole merger occurring 1.3 billion light years away. There followed a deluge of celebratory science articles throughout the mainstream press, hailing the final confirmation of Einstein’s theory, the inception of a new field of astronomy, and a triumph for publicly-funded “big science”.

I seem to be the only one out there who is saying this, but doesn’t this celebration strike anyone else as a tad premature?

To get a few things out of the way first: I have no argument with Einstein. I think that General Relativity (GR) is a remarkable and thoroughly battle-tested theory, and I am willing to consider it “true” just about as far as any scientific theory can usefully be said to be so. (Though it’s also technically “false”, since it doesn’t play well with quantum mechanics, but leave that aside.)

I also have no problem with the concept of gravitational waves; without knowing the math myself, there is clearly a long-standing consensus in physics that the waves are a pretty inevitable consequence of both Einstein’s equations and the concept that gravity travels at a finite speed. I think discovering gravity waves and learning to use and observe them would be incredibly interesting. I also freely admit that what LIGO observed on September 14, 2015 is fairly likely to be an example of such waves.

Yet just going on my own scientific intuitions, as of this moment the result seems, if not fishy, then weirdly unconvincing–for a number of reasons.

First, and biggest, there’s the as-yet one-off nature of the signal. No other “chirps” resembling GW150914 have been picked up by LIGO since September 14.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of repeatability in legitimating scientific claims. The fewer the observations, and the more times similar methods fail to recover a reported result, the harder it becomes to rule out random fluctuations, unknown phenomena, or even misconduct–and the worse (or at least flukier) that first result looks. Science only works well when nature gives you enough clearly identifiable cases of your Phenomenon Of Interest that you can begin to play with them–to build up statistics, to explore their regularities and quirks, and so on. The longer LIGO goes with no further signals found, the more GW150914 will begin to look like either an instrumental hiccup or a tantalizing but unaccountable curio, rather like the WOW! signal.

Second, there’s the silence itself. While the sheer uniqueness of GW150914 may be curious, the length of time that has gone by with nothing more seen is equally puzzling. Given the newly enhanced detection range of LIGO, mergers of ultra-massive objects (pulsars, black holes etc.) were predicted to happen every week or so. What are the odds that the observatory would detect only one in five months of looking–i.e. twenty times fewer than expected? At the least, it suggests that the astronomical models that generated the predictions of merger frequency are a ways off.

Third, there’s the source. The problem with it is quite simply that no one knows where it is. Only two LIGO-quality interferometers were running on that fine September day; without that third detector, triangulation was impossible, confining the location of the signal’s source only to an arc across the sky, rather than a specific point.

Fourth, drawing on the above point, if we cannot even locate the source, then it’s impossible to apply other, more established modalities to corroborate the given story of what happened. This is pretty much a tautology: if we want to aim a telescope at the place the gravitational waves came from, to see if it actually looks like the kind of structure where pulsars or black holes have just been colliding… then we first have to know where that place is. But we don’t know for GW150914, and we have no other instances to use… so how can we say what the thing was? (On the other hand, inferring the discovery of gravity waves from a “black hole merger” whose only evidence for existing is itself based on gravity waves, seems like circular reasoning on a cosmic scale.)

Fifth, there’s the timing. LIGO had barely been switched on when GW150914 was observed, and even then the system was not formally in “observation mode“. Apparently there also was nobody in the control room at the moment of the observation, the scientists in charge having left for their hotel rooms. On the one hand, it could be pure chance that the signal just happened to arrive so promptly; on the other hand, it seems more likely that glitches could occur near the very outset of a hitherto-untested machine’s operation, and the more so with no one present to keep an eye on things.

Finally, there are the more interminable questions of interpretation, which in this case heads into the philosophical netherlands of scientific certainty. GR may now seem rather old-hat to physicists, who have gotten used to having it constantly in their field of view (no pun intended) for over a century; but in fact, it remains an extremely complex and abstract mathematical and conceptual structure, requiring a large number of very specific and counter-intuitive tools. Both the concepts of “gravitational wave” and “black hole”, for example, for all that we are now largely used to them, are so abstruse, so completely removed from any conceivable human intuition or direct observation, and in short so exceptionally theory-laden, that I worry that in the LIGO case the experts’ thorough knowledge of the theory of general relativity and gravitational waves may actually prevent them from thinking of other simpler interpretations.

Then again, attempts to apply Occam’s Razor to the LIGO result leave one’s head spinning. What warrants our saying that a single blip such as GW150914 really is most simply explained as “the record of a change in the path lengths in the detector due to a passing gravitational wave, itself the product of the collision of two black holes of such-and-such mass” …and not as anything else? We are put in the uncomfortable philosophical position of having to categorically settle on the nature and significance of a single event, on the basis of its resemblance to waves of an exceedingly hard-to-detect sort, produced by an invisible and non-localizable source–and all based purely on its similarity to a simulation derived from an immensely complex and abstract theory. In effect, the LIGO result walks on the very very edge between firm scientific fact versus rationalization run amok–and at this point, I’m still not completely sure which side it will end up on.

Matters aren’t helped by the size of the actual oscillation: 1/1,000 the diameter of a proton. No known microscope can probe distances anywhere close to this. My reaction to this is hard to describe. Of course, science has routinely probed domains far outside our perception or common sense, with resounding success–but these ventures have always proven massively repeatable, and repeatable without billion-dollar instruments that take a thousand people to operate. I don’t want to say that an effect so tiny can’t even exist or be measured or matter, but here again I get that impression that we are closing in on that maddening edge between “arriving at a truth” and living on stories and rationalizations.

In “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus–faced with a well-meaning attempt to teach him about the structure of atoms, and so allay his puzzlement about his place in the world–mused:

“…all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art. What need had I of so many efforts?”

This is my reaction when I look at the LIGO paper, or read the peans about it. I can’t process it. It seems like poetry. We are dealing with distances so tiny, with phenomena so completely un-relatable to any meaningful aspect of reality as we know it, and with events which seem so certain to be swamped by billions of other conceivable phenomena, that the only question that comes is: is it any of it real? Is it an instrumental triumph or a poetic exuberance? Without more information, I can’t tell the difference. I find myself shrugging at the unfathomable, and wanting to say to the scientists: “maybe you know, and maybe you don’t”. I think that a lot of people reading about this story and trying to understand its significance have reacted the same way.

In fairness, assuming it isn’t some kind of glitch, the work of an “evil genius”, or a test “injection”, GW150914 clearly can’t be sheer coincidence. The fact that two detectors in different states found the signal within milliseconds of each other–shifted and inverted, just as would be expected based on their differing orientations–and that the two waveforms’ shapes closely match each other, is a strong indication that something “real” happened. It’s also impressive that these two waveforms closely resemble that modeled (I assume straightforwardly and definitively) by theory, even if I struggle with how much significance to assign to that resemblance.

To sum up, except for the philosophical puzzlement (which will haunt me no matter what), most of my uneasiness with the LIGO findings could be dispelled by two things happening. First, the signal must be replicated, with the new instances all closely matching the most straightforward GR predictions available; and second, for these new signals, the source must be localized and preferably corroborated with observations of some other kind (for instance, X-ray/radio astronomy) to show that the origin of the gravitational radiation does in fact coincide with a plausible pulsar or black-hole source. For all I know, these things could be revealed next week. If they are, I will join the chorus of commentators confidently celebrating the discovery.

Until then, my view is that the response to the LIGO announcement is more interesting than the announcement itself, though in a way that has almost nothing to do with gravitational waves. In decades past, a single, non-repeatable result, from an essentially unidentified physical source, would be received by the scientific community perhaps with interest but still with an attitude of intense skepticism, pending further observations. Yet here in 2016, there seems to be no trace of such skepticism or caution (excepting the ever-cantankerous John Horgan). This is all the more amazing given the very recent scientific fiascoes of BICEP2 and the Gran Sasso “faster than light” neutrinos. What is going on?

It has certainly helped in this case that almost no one really doubts the theoretical basis of gravitational waves, whereas there are doubts aplenty about cosmic inflation (BICEP2) and faster-than-light travel. Partly this is how “normal” science works: results that fit the expected theory perfectly are embraced, while those that don’t fit must clear a far higher bar. The search for gravitational waves is “normal science” par excellence, as was the search for the Higgs boson.

But it’s also true that there have been no experimental novelties in fundamental physics in the last 50 years, creating such a drought of juicy headlines and proposals that increasing numbers of physicists are tempted to abandon the criterion of experimental verification and falsifiability altogether. There seems to be a feeling of growing unease spreading in this part of the scientific community, as it seeks to follow its beautiful abstractions and constructs–epitomized by string theory–away from the albatross of experiment. Even as physicists seek “ultimate reality” in such abstractions, they are simultaneously being led into a place ever more remote from reality and ever more ambiguous in its real-world implications.

What the premature release and hype of the LIGO signal therefore tells me is fundamental physics is quietly desperate. Credibility is increasingly strained by the failure to discover particles beyond the 1970’s-vintage Standard Model, or anything else of comparable surprise, and by the recent fiascoes I mentioned. It may well be that in such a time, the laurels of “having proved Einstein right” vis-à-vis gravitational waves were just too tempting: physics needed a new grand experimental result too desperately to wait for, or demand, the proper amount of reproducibility and corroboration. Let’s hope, for science’s sake, that this desperation and haste does not lead to yet another humiliation.

Crisis, Conversion, and Concern

I’ve never thought of myself or my family as particularly religious. My parents were all over the map: my father, the son of a pastor, was a staunch atheist; my mother’s side is of Jewish background, but my mom was never serious about any of it. Growing up, I remember a Christmas tree in the house at the end of each year. We went neither to church nor temple, except to hear Christmas music or chamber groups now and then. My mother, for her part, preferred her own explorations and quotations out of Jung, Alan Watts, Christian Gnostic traditions, while I grew up rather equally fond of the Gospel of Thomas and the Tao Te Ching. All in all, we’re a pretty good example of that curious syncretism that sometimes emerges when traditional faiths crash into the fragmentation and disenchantment of modern life.

Much of the rest of our family, however, remains at least culturally Jewish, attending temple, forming friendships with others in the community, and so on. Also, the matriarch on that side of the family is a well-known Holocaust survivor, and her formidable presence and story has powerfully cemented the Jewish identity for many in family and beyond.

Very recently, a medium-close relative of mine (let’s call her Claire) abruptly announced that she was abandoning the religion of her side of the family, with which she was raised and socialized from an early age, in favor of a revivalist Christian congregation in Texas. In a long email that seems to walk the line between the ramblings of unhinged desperation and the delirious afterglow of spiritual awakening, Claire announced to the entire extended family that she had begun attending this church over a year before, when “the whispers in [her] head had turned to screams”. Awed by the parishioners’ tolerance of “the terrible legacy” she carries through her Jewish upbringing and heritage, yet filled with pride at being “the root”, Claire announced to us all that her “heart had been broken open with love and grace”.

I find myself constantly trying to make sense of what happened. Others have had much more intense reactions. One family member has already declared, point-blank, that Claire must be going insane, that the conversion can only be a sign of ongoing mental collapse. Others are furious with her, refusing to speak to her. (The matriarch, surprisingly, has taken it in stride.)

Looking back, there were plenty of circumstances that might have nursed this conversion. The birth of Claire’s children was exceptionally difficult and traumatizing, and she was laid low for many months after. She abandoned an exciting career to take care of her children, and grew increasingly unhappy with her marriage as her husband gradually gave up trying to earn a living and became a homebody. In recent years, I would see her rarely, mainly at holiday gatherings–sitting alone, surrounded by an envelope and an expression of pain, or making small talk in a tired, rueful tone.

Yet beyond this, even without these things going wrong, a deep weariness was apparent in her life long before that first journey to the church. It’s related to the same fragmentation and disenchantment I mentioned before. Claire was raised in an oddly sterile, secularized kind of world, where material comforts combine with a strange powerlessness to create a world without certainties and without magic. Her Judaism was conceived solely as a social event to be done once a week, with as little passion, spiritual or mystical concern as possible. Perhaps her jump towards charismatic religion has as much to do with escaping this sterility as with the actual troubles and disappointments she faced.

I have felt similar things, and struggled with them. But my own movement has been far slower, and far more ambiguous, than Claire’s.

Over the years, I have evolved from being obnoxiously critical of all religion–like reading excerpts of Hitchens’ “God is Not Great” in a loud voice to whoever would listen, pumping my fist in agreement–to a kind of cautious sympathy for people of faith. Years of my life spent learning about the powers of science have slowly forced me to consider its limitations as well. I’ve also gradually developed an aversion to people who cheerfully say we are nothing but biochemical machines produced by mindless selection–they seem to be in the thrall of some bizarre game of self-negation, a love of system over soul whose ultimate consequences could prove as creepy as those of religious maniacs themselves.

When you get down to it, life accosts us all with all kinds of existential riddles, horrors and mysteries, and gives us but a short time to come to grips with them in whatever way we can. And so perhaps there is merit in admitting there is something inscrutable and astounding about the universe and our condition, something which science will never nail down–and if you like, calling it God.

Camus thought that, faced with these hard existential facts and the apparent starkness of the human predicament, resorting to religious belief and mythology amounted to “philosophical suicide”, an abandonment of radical human freedom. Yet I have seen too much of the torments of people of deep faith–the constant quiet struggle with death and doubt, the uncertainty as to which path to follow, the times when suffering stubbornly hangs on despite the best of deeds, the problem of evil in the world. I find it hard to believe any this is inherently less noble or less existentially valid of a struggle than that of Camus’ stoic Sisyphean ideal. Indeed, what greater assertion of will and freedom could there be than to devote oneself to a set of beliefs not out of certainty they or true–indeed knowing they can never be proved in this life–but out of a profound decision to live as though they were true? It surely takes no less determination or courage than does Sisyphus rolling his boulder.

This is not to say all motivations for invoking God are especially deep or noble. Surely much of what passes for religion has nothing to do with humbly seeking the ineffable mystery, struggling with “the silence of God”, or tenaciously affirming a moral law in a world that disregards it; rather, much religion is about putting words in the mouth of God for the sake of one’s own reassurance (or vengeance). One can all too easily hide from God by hunkering down inside one’s own image of God. Voltaire’s remark that “if God made man in His image, man has more than reciprocated”, or the old warning “if you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha!”, shows this practice has a long history.

Similarly, many invoke God out of the need for a formula or recipe, to tame the ambiguity and chaos of life and thus escape from the torment of their own freedom. Camus was keen to point out the singular paradox that genuine freedom is burdensome, and often thankless; for while the abdication of freedom to a higher authority may itself feel like freedom, it leaves one secretly in chains. History has shown too that such a surrender need hardly be evidence of a divine authority at work, since it works just as well with a charismatic leader, an ideology, or a social role. In her email, Claire wrote that she has “never felt freer”. I wonder what kind of freedom she meant.

Holy books like the Bible or the Koran seem to have a lasting charge of that very magical potency that seems missing from our current lives–just look at their ongoing ability to enthrall the human mind in its own need to see the world meaningfully. They invite us to see the world the way we most naturally desire, one filled with reassurance, clear goals, and personal meaning.

Yet while I find much wisdom and even perhaps miracles in these books, there is also no denying their terrifying scenes of and exhortations to gore and barbarism. I am convinced that these darker aspects of warfare and vengeance and sacrifice–though waved away in polite circles, and among outsiders–are as big a part of their appeal as the goodness-and-charity bit. God won’t just fill you with everlasting love, peace and submission; he will also hideously smite your enemies and cast them into eternal fire. But in the minds of those worn raw by dismal life circumstances or constant humiliation, such promises become like catnip to the mind.

At any rate, existentialist stoicism is a bitter and wearying pill to swallow, faith-friendly or not, and most people cannot swallow it all the time. So who knows.

It’s strange how you can’t really know the most basic things about what people will do, or who they are. Growing up, Claire had only ever struck me as a worldly, even-tempered girl, with a unflaggingly irreverent, wry wit. Religious dogma seemed about as unimportant to her general temperament as anything could be. Now, many of the people who grew up with her claim not to know quite who she is any more. It is shocking how a change of label, or going to “another tribe”, can so drastically change what you perceive deeper down.

Perhaps Claire has seen God–and perhaps He has wondrously healed her. Yet I struggle with the idea of finding God out of desperation, or through self-shaming (“the terrible legacy”), and even more with the idea of condemning all paths to God other than one’s own. In these things, I tend to read not God’s work, but an all-too-human desperation for meaning and hope in a world culture that has failed to offer them. But I hope I’m wrong.

Only time will tell whether this conversion experience is just a temporary coping mechanism, or a permanent change. If the latter, it has revealed a whole other self that none of us ever suspected she harbored. Perhaps that really is her true self, the one God intended for her. I don’t expect I will ever find God in the same way, or the same place (though you never can know). But whoever she is, whatever tribe she winds up in, we will be there for her.

Decadence: Thoughts on Douthat

Ross Douthat, channeling Spengler it seems, has just diagnosed the political undercurrent driving Election 2016 as an across-the-board revolt against “decadence”. According to his recent opinion piece in the Times, we live in a country

“…where people have fewer children and hold diminished expectations for the future, where institutions don’t work particularly well but can’t seem to be effectively reformed, where growth is slow and technological progress disappoints. […] This is how many Americans, many Westerners, experience their civilization in the early years of the 21st century. “

The very title of the piece, “Trump, Sanders and the Revolt Against Decadence” suggests something strikingly new is afoot here. “Decadence” is a very strong, even fraught word to use, especially in a mainstream outlet like the Times–not least because Spengler was a sometime favorite of nationalist thinkers in prewar Germany (though he was himself highly critical of Nazism and eugenics).

This isn’t to say it’s not a useful concept however, only that it carries a lot of baggage and should be used extremely carefully. Indeed, Douthat’s own usage of the word seems to willfully elide vital aspects of it, as though keeping a viciously sharp sword half-sheathed.

For one thing, it’s a very… deep word. “Decadence” isn’t simply about prudish objections to young people forgetting their manners or getting less religious, and diagnosing it also requires a lot more than a period of economic stagnation or of institutions not working very well. Rather it refers to a kind of systemic spiritual and moral decay that afflicts societies pitching into decline. Decadence, one might say, is when a culture begins to forget itself, and becomes jaded with the very ideas that gave it birth, vigor and identity. It is a disease, usually fatal, of a culture’s very soul.

Douthat is careful not to prod at these more fraught and hard-to-measure meanings of the term, at least not directly. Instead, he limits his focus to “perceived” decadence in the eyes of the electorate and on materialistic indicators of decline, while gamely leaving out these edgy spiritual and normative connotations.

In this well-scabbarded form, decadence looks to have a lot to do with what I’ve elsewhere called “inverse reform”–where a society repeatedly finds itself backing into “reforms” that deepen its problems instead of fixing them. Inverse reform, however, doesn’t have the same moralistic tones as “decadence”, nor the same theory-laden implication of a grand wheel of culture and morality tipping over into another unavoidable phase of decline (although it can be compatible with all of that).

Going a step further, Douthat observes that, while decadence is often recognized in its own time, the proposed remedies to it themselves tend to carry the stamp of decadence, and so end up missing their intended purpose. The distinctive originality of the culture grows stale, so that what passes for innovation is increasingly a repackaged, if not ironic version of things tried long before.

As an example, he gazes despairingly at the unconventional candidates both right and left in Election 2016, and notes that although the campaign has overflowed all normal bounds of ideology and political discourse, there is a curious banality in the midst of the foment: “The fact that both of these messages — Trump’s “Make America great again” and Bernie’s “Why not socialism?” — involve essentially recycled visions of the future is a sign of how hard it is for a decadent society to escape the trap of repetition.”

Again, this conception of decadence, where proposed remedies can only focus on recapturing the great ideas of the past and thus risk worsening the problem, is basically the same as what I have called inverse reform. What remains much harder is to decide whether this similarity really indicates decadence in the full (and dangerous, and controversial) sense.

I agree that Sanders’ message is not essentially new, nor is he even especially socialist; instead, as Noam Chomsky recently observed, he’s best thought of as a “New-Dealer“, placing him squarely in a tradition going back to the ’30s. But of course, an old idea can sometimes be a perfectly good answer to a current problem, and there is a huge difference between a system that chooses wrong reforms but could be easily brought back to health by choosing a few right ones, and one that is sick in its soul–so off-track and in such a deep way that no repairs could do anything but buy time.

Our hope, of course, is that we are the former case, and all that is needed is single-payer healthcare, a higher minimum wage, etc. (or if you’re a Trumpist, a huge honkin’ wall against Mexico) to set the country on the right track again. All I can say is: it remains to be seen.

Caution is understandable when using powerful words or sweeping ideas. We are after all still dealing with the global hangover left by a weird string of utopian ideologies stretching from the 19th century, plenty of which are still in force. There’s also the fact that even the most careful and short-term economic theories typically turn out to be near-useless in making predictions (and often serve as cover for corruption or for trashing the planet).

Still, I think Douthat’s resurrection of this difficult word is an interesting and daring move. It’s rare these days that anyone tries to invoke grand historical narratives or concepts to understand political developments on large timescales; it’s almost taboo in mainstream scholarship and discourse, notwithstanding the work of a few writers like Jared Diamond.

In lieu of great stories, or words filled with power, millennials have found themselves in the middle of a scrapheap of half-discredited ideas. They throw our hands up in a kind of jaded incomprehension and take each day as it comes, or limit their thoughts to very circumscribed subjects, usually economic in nature–this country, that school, this industry, that prosperity index. They think not of their places in an arc of history but of their prospects in the next six months or five years. What hope does a grand synthesis of cultural history have in world where you can’t tell what the employment picture will be five months out?

But there will always the temptation to find poetry in the dry prose of history, to decode the waves of societal rise and fall like some epic text; to find proof that, as the saying goes, that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes”. Surely there can never be anything close to laws of sociology or history in the sense that there are of physics, but the idea that certain broadly similar stages and themes recur in the evolution of diverse human societies is intuitively compelling. If nothing else, freeing up terms like “decadence” offers a refreshing catharsis, a way to give vent to a deep feeling about things far bigger than our own lives.

As for what the upcoming election says about the state of the country, I admit to sharing Douthat’s reservations. Fond as I am of Sanders, I think that in the longer run we have to come up with something more original than his somewhat retread New-Deal-ish promises–and a hell of a lot more original than the triumphal strongman-cult of Trump or the grey plutocratic “sensibleness” of Bloomberg.

What is truly needed is something far more elemental than any of these: the ability to create, at a national scale, truly new dreams and values, or at least to renew and refresh the old ones for each generation. If it makes any sense to talk about a society having a “soul”, as Spengler did, I think it must exist in the sense of an elemental, creative, renewing force of this kind.

Such a force cannot be conjured by any ideology or formula, nor by personal charisma, because it is the source of these things, not their servant. It appears only when, for reasons never fully understood, a great number of people suddenly come to believe and aspire to the same things, and to work in the same direction. That, too, is one of the great rhymes of human history.

The Bloom’s Already Off the Rose

Over the years, as I’ve watched the unfolding of the financial crisis and bailouts, followed by the resumed consolidation of the banking industry, a dismal observation has kept recurring to me: that you know a system has become terminally dysfunctional when the only way it can respond to problems is by actually rewarding the elements that caused the problem. Looking out over the American landscape today, this hypothesis seems to show more and more widespread applicability.

“Terminally dysfunctional” is different from just “corrupt”. As long as the people and philosophies primarily responsible for a crisis can be identified and are held accountable afterwards–such as by being fired or put on trial–there is a chance that the system will provide its own remedy to corruption, and emerge stronger, at least for at time. This is the “virtuous cycle”, the ideal of rule of law and democratic accountability. On the other hand, if the guilty parties are known, but actually emerge unscathed and more powerful still, then a vicious cycle has begun that is very hard to break. It’s like paying the fox to guard the henhouse–and then paying him more as more hens disappear. Let’s call them conditions of inverse reform: reform that does the opposite of what it’s needed to do.

The complement of inverse reform, one might add, is perverse neglect, whereby the system marginalizes its most educated, talented and creative members in favor of the well-connected and already established. I’ve lamented this development in prior posts, for instance in the difficulties faced by the wage-earning classes, in the struggles of younger generations to enter the professions without crippling debt, and in the declining fortunes of those getting advanced degrees. It is, I’m certain, a major force driving the extraordinary election of 2016.

But if the financial crisis was a triumph of irrationality in the guise of rationality and respect, and the lack of new careers (other than the part-time Walmart kind) is a sign that cronyism is becoming a stand-in for knowledge, ability and even ambition, it now seems like such ersatz reasonableness has stepped forward in another guise, this time the 2016 political circus, to “save the day”… in the form of Michael Bloomberg, lord of the eponymous media empire.

Yes, in an election that has achieved levels of polarization and demagoguery more redolent of the fevers and apoplexies of early 20th-century Europe than the relatively tepid squabbles of late 20th-century America, the remedy is somehow supposed to be a technocratic Wall-Streeter with several times more money than Donald Trump–about $37 billion to his name.

Incredibly, as popular rage brews over gross economic inequality, stagnation and corruption, the American power system’s reaction appears to be… drumroll please… to have billionaires better represented among the presidential candidates. While I’d never claim Bloomberg was himself directly responsible for the financial crisis or triumphant return of Too Big To Fail, he is clearly a product of the same system that produced them, and as such it would be hard to imagine a clearer demonstration of inverse reform were he to enter the race.

Bloomberg claims not to want to run except as a “last resort”, solely if Sanders and Trump both get their respective nominations. In that event, some strange combination of power-hunger and noblesse oblige would compel him to step forth as the one blessedly cool head in a roomful of seething ideological maniacs. But imagine if he were to jump in anyway against Hillary Clinton, perhaps in a fit of pique over her increasingly bald attempts to co-opt Sanders’ positions! We would then for all intents and pupose have the spectacle of an all-billionaire ticket. Hope and Change would have nothing on this.

Of course, technically Hillary and Bill fall far short of the billionaire club, with a joint net worth estimated at a cozy $50 million. But Hillary’s departure from the Iowa campaign trail at a pivotal moment just before the caucuses–as if summoned back to home base by some hidden homing device–in order to address a select and secretive crowd of hedge-fund investors in Philly is just one more sign that, though technically a non-billionaire, she will be as good as one if not better in office: a high-profile retainer of the plutocracy, kept in high style, leveraging expertise and connections in government in order to win their favor and do their bidding, with a small sop to the 99% every now and then in the name of heading off social uprisings. More of the same, in other words.

I don’t doubt Bloomberg is a smart guy, and he appears to have been a capable mayor and administrator. But it is a grievous mistake to assume that more than a splinter of the voting population in the U.S. today is really looking for just those two things; in fact, those are likely among the last things on their minds. Sure enough, current polls have suggested Bloomberg would have underwhelming support in a third-party run. (The good news for him is that even with a loss, Bloomberg could still afford about 36 more presidential runs, given it takes about $1 billion a pop in our post-Citizens United campaign scene.)

Yet regardless of his sheer intelligence or procedural skill, the fact that Bloomberg can seriously countenance himself as the elixir for the radicalization of 2016, without realizing his own involvement in the very engine of that radicalization, suggests either a willfully skin-deep and paternalistic understanding of the political situation, or an incredibly fanciful self-image–both delusions that are, not incidentally, quite characteristic of systems in the grip of inverse reform.

There is a deep resentment brewing among the non-political classes in this nation, among people generally dismissed by those classes as irrelevant or at best as pawns of public relations and campaigning efforts. Conversely, the complete failure of the American political class and punditry to see this coming suggests they inhabit a reality that is not simply at variance with the real world, but deliberately arranged against it. If the principle of inverse reform holds sway in November, installing a leader even further detached than hitherto from the aspirations and sufferings afoot in this country, then we may face far greater surprises ahead than a reality-star presidential candidate.